April 18, 2008
WASHINGTON -- A U.S. watchdog on religious freedom urged China on Tuesday to stop repatriating refugees to North Korea, where it said returning asylum seekers are often tortured in an effort to suppress Christianity.
Writing for Reuters News Service, David Morgan reported the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a 49-page report that North Korea employs stringent security measures to stop the spread of religion, especially Protestant Christianity.
Some of the worst treatment is handed out to refugees sent back to North Korea from China, Reuters reported the commission said.
“The forcible repatriation of refugees from China remains an issue of special concern,” said its report on North Korea, titled “A Prison Without Bars.”
Reuters said the report continued, “If it is discovered that (refugees) have either converted to Christianity while in China or had contact with South Koreans -- both of which are considered to be political offenses -- they reportedly suffer harsh interrogation, torture and ill-treatment.”
Refugees can also be sent to forced labor camps and prisons, often without trial, the report said.
Reuters reported the commission called on the international community to pressure Beijing to stop repatriating refugees, and provide increased protections as required by international protocols.
“Such action should begin immediately as China prepares to host the 2008 Summer Olympics,” the report said.
Hundreds of thousands of people are believed to have fled North Korea in the 1990's, during a famine that killed at least 1 million people in a country of 23 million, Reuters reported aid agencies say.
Reuters reported that the U.S. government estimates there are 30,000 to 40,000 North Korean refugees still living in China, according to the commission. But the panel said humanitarian aid agencies believe the number remains near the 100,000 range.
Reuters said that China typically views asylum seekers as economic refugees and returns them to North Korea, which has long had a poor human rights record.
U.S. findings, based on interviews with 32 refugees and six former North Korean security agents, said many returning refugees are tortured to determine why they left the country.
Reuters said that according to the commission, Pyongyang views new religious activity as a security threat in a country dominated by the personality cult that surrounds North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his family.
North Korean security agents especially target those thought to have visited Chinese churches for food aid or other forms of assistance.
Reuters reported that former North Korean security agents told the commission that authorities set up bogus prayer meetings to entrap new converts in North Korea, and train staff in Christian practices, for the purposes of infiltrating churches in China.
“There continues to be a pressing need on the international level for further, more effective action that addresses the ongoing repression of religious freedom and other human rights in North Korea and the problems of North Korean refugees in China,” said Commission Chairman Michael Cromartie.
At the report’s launching, the AFP News Service reported Republican Senator Sam Brownback charged that Beijing's continued repatriation of North Korean refugees, despite reports about their victimization on their return, “highlighted China's role as the great enabler of human rights abuses.”
The AFP reported Brownback added, “There is a dismal record of China in Tibet; there is a dismal record of China in Darfur; there is a dismal record of China in the treatment of North Korean refugees.”
Brownback called on China to stop the “abuses,” the AFP reported.
Brownback accused China, the AFP reported, of defying its own agreement with the United Nations by refusing to give the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees access to the North Korean refugees, who had to “face death and imprisonment” on their repatriation.
The commission responsible for the report was created by Congress in 1998. It is funded in entirety by the U.S. government. Its commissioners are appointed by Congress and the White House.
© 2008 ASSIST News Service, used with permission